Learning difficulties made a whole lot easier

PUBLISHED: 15:24 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:44 07 September 2010

FOR 40 years, therapist Katrin Stroh has helped children with severe developmental delays to play, communicate and learn. From the 1980s onwards, she worked with children and parents at her Highgate home, using a groundbreaking technique called Functional

FOR 40 years, therapist Katrin Stroh has helped children with severe developmental delays to play, communicate and learn.

From the 1980s onwards, she worked with children and parents at her Highgate home, using a groundbreaking technique called Functional Learning.

Based on the idea that all normal children learn through certain kinds of play, it is a practical, creative, adaptable way of giving even the most severely delayed children the tools to learn.

Stroh has used her years of clinical experience as a developmental and speech and language therapist to co-produce a book and CD for parents and special needs teachers.

Every Child Can Learn (Sage Publications) is co-written by Stroh, Thelma Robinson and Alan Proctor who all worked - alongside Stroh's husband George - at High Wick residential hospital in the 1970s coming up with innovative treatment programmes for special needs youngsters.

It offers a step by step, illustrated guide including material for making cards and worksheets and a film of some of the techniques in action.

Stroh, who as the title indicates, believes there's no such thing as a child who cannot learn, says when she started out in the 1960s there was little provision or understanding of autistic and other developmentally delayed children.

"Many of the parents who came here were at the end of their tether. They literally had nowhere else to go and had been told their children would never learn much," she says.

"So often in these situations, parents focus on what their child cannot do, so when they start to understand they have a potential for learning it is a huge relief and can give them great hope."

Stroh's technique is deliberately geared towards the kinds of things children like to do and the way they communicate before they can speak.

Placing objects, piling them up, banging things together, matching, sorting, sequencing and brick building are the tools which all regular toddlers use in everyday life to learn about the world around them.

These are used extensively in the exercises, as is pointing, which is the way babies of around a year make their wishes and needs known.

Using everyday objects (Stroh prefers they be wooden rather than plastic) the technique minimises the need for verbal instructions or responses which could cause problems for developmentally delayed children.

It also takes into account the child's feelings - for example keeping the learning environment quiet, with minimal sensory input (in Stroh's house the worktop faces a blank, white wall) and recognising that such children's learning is often hindered by their anxious or fearful response to the unfamiliar with head banging, rocking, screaming or withdrawal. "You can imagine how stressful it is for parents with a child who screams a lot of the time - I have had cases where the first few sessions are about calming them down enough to start doing the work."

Autistic children have gaps in their understanding of the world because they may get hung up on one particular skill, or direct energies usually used to learn into hyperactivity.

Functional Learning helps to fill those gaps so they can discover the pleasure of new experiences and learning, without fear.

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